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Fighting Scots ‘fight’ celebrated by Commencement speaker Min Jin Lee

Barry McNamara
05/13/2018
Monmouth College’s graduates line up at the beginning of the 161st Commencement Exercises.
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MONMOUTH, Ill. – To connect with 265 Fighting Scot graduates at Monmouth College’s 161st Commencement Exercises on a mild, overcast Sunday afternoon, Commencement speaker Min Jin Lee could not draw upon a personal Scottish heritage.

So the critically acclaimed author who was a 2017 National Book Award finalist for her second novel, Pachinko, drew upon her experience as a fighter instead.

Lee told the graduates that her path to becoming a celebrated author has not been an easy one.

“I have a three-ring binder full of rejection letters,” she said. “I thought about bringing it with me to show it to you, but I didn’t want to check an extra bag.”

Lee described other struggles, including moving to America from Seoul at age 7 – not knowing English – and later battling liver cirrhosis. She said she could identify with issues the graduates might need to fight.

“Maybe you have been afraid to fight because you’ve lost too many times,” she said. “Maybe you’ve been afraid to fight because you’re ashamed of wanting to win. Maybe you’ve been afraid to fight because you think you appear dull next to those around you who are dazzling.”

A 2018 recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship for Fiction, Lee has been named a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies at Harvard University for 2018-19, where she will research and write her third novel, American Hagwon.

Lee told the Monmouth graduates of being challenged to fight as a second-grade student at Public School No. 2 in East Elmhurst, N.Y. The challenger was a fourth-grade student named Geraldine. After school, Lee went to the designated spot “prepared to die.”

“She pushed me, and I swayed, but I stood my ground,” said Lee. “I didn’t fight back, and I didn’t cry. And then my older sister appeared, and she stood between Geraldine and me. My sister, who was also in fourth grade, was 100 times tougher than me, and she would’ve flattened Geraldine in half a minute. Geraldine left.”

When the Class of 2018 has moments of doubt, perhaps drawing upon her advice will have the effect of an older sister who magically appears from nowhere.

“I want to fight for you,” said Lee, emotions halting her speech. “Fighting and coming up short is worse than not fighting at all. Please show up. ... In my life, I’ve learned about the types of fighting. I’ve learned how to fight for the type of life you want.”

She said the Fighting Scot graduates can learn from fights won and fights lost.

“It can be good that you lost, because now you know more about yourself – you know what’s important and what’s not,” she said. “Who you are and what you want – store those as carefully as you store your diploma.”

Lee told the graduates they’d be strengthened in their battles by their “superpowers,” which they’ve displayed many times in the past – “the way you’ve helped your friends ... the way you know how to love when you don’t have anything left. Love requires attention and sacrifice. Without it, our lives lack purpose. We’re fighting for someone, and that purpose gives us great power.

“Class of 2018, you are powerful,” she said. “You are Fighting Scots.”

During the ceremony’s student address, Diana Rubi of Peoria, Ill., helped celebrate Mother’s Day by sharing nuggets of wisdom – in both Spanish and English – that her mother had taught her.

“Get your act together and get going” was how one Spanish phrase translated, and another was “nobody can take away your knowledge.” Other advice was, “Do it like you mean it – in everything you do, put forth your best effort” and to treat people cordially and with respect.

“Be good to people, regardless of who they are,” said Rubi. “We are here to serve more than just ourselves.”

In her farewell address, graduate Farida Mohammed of Conyers, Ga., shared her journey of coming to Monmouth College from Ghana, which she said had not been easy. But along the way, she learned many lessons.

“I challenged myself to be a part of other people’s stories,” said Mohammed, who said that Monmouth taught her to be independent, as well as a team player.

Students, faculty, staff honored

Twelve members of the class graduated summa cum laude, “with highest honor”: Callie Rae Cook of Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Saxon Day of Cupertino, Calif.; Daniel Hintzke of Monmouth, Amy Lawrence of Hampshire, Ill.; Alexi Licata of Gladstone, Ill.; Madeline Neal of Charleston, Ill.; Hannah Rillie of Morrison, Ill.; Katelyn Robertson of Carman, Ill.; Stephanie Saey of Galesburg, Ill.; Emily Sheetz of Mokena, Ill.; Isaac Willis or Morton, Ill.; and Ashley Winters of Galesburg, Ill.

Faculty promotions recently approved by the Monmouth College Board of Trustees were also announced: Audra Sostarecz, chemistry, and Michael Sostarecz, mathematics and computer science, were promoted to full professor. Promoted to associate professor were Julie Rothbardt, political economy and commerce, Robert Simmons, classics, and David Wright, English.

Marta Tucker, who retired at the end of the semester after 35 years on the faculty, and Rick Sayre, director of Hewes Library for 20 years, were recognized at the ceremony, as were retiring staff members Mary Phillips, Roger Sander and Rhonda Spence.

Saturday ceremonies

Commencement weekend also included the Baccalaureate Service, Honor Walk and Senior Gala, all of which were held on Saturday.

In her baccalaureate sermon, the Rev. Shannon Johnson Kershner, senior pastor of the Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, cited a verse from 2 Corinthians to encourage the graduating seniors.

Kershner used Paul’s “treasure in jars of clay” passage to stress the imperfections that are present in everyone. Rather than dwelling on those imperfections, she said it’s OK to not have everything in life figured out, much like Kershner herself did not know what would come next when she graduated from college.

“I was proud, excited and completely and totally terrified that someone would point out I had absolutely no idea how to act as an adult in the real world,” said Kershner. She added that it’s permissible to be a “cracked pot – none of us has it all together.”

“Graduates, you are set free of being found out,” said Kershner. “It’s not solely up to you. God’s got you. We’re all going to leave here as cracked pots, but the Master Potter uses cracked pots. Just let the light shine from all our cracks.”

The service also featured song and dance, including performances by MC Melanin, the Colorful Voices of Praise Dancers and the Chorale.